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Muslim Identity 1850 - 1920

Part II, Paper 26. Essay Topic 16: Recasting Religion: Muslim Identity 1850 – 1920. Week 5 essay, I was supervised at Churchill by Leigh Denault.

Why and in what ways did Muslim politics emerge as distinctive after the mutiny of 1857?

Muslim politics was to become very important to the history of India, even leading to the creation of separate political states in the twentieth century. However this outcome was by no means seen as inevitable in the years after the first war of independence in 1857. Muslims may have been singled out by the British as the instigators of what they called the Indian Mutiny, but Muslim campaigners were just as likely to work with Hindu political activists, as against them. Indeed Muslim figures played a big role in the early National Congress. This essay will seek to show that, nevertheless, there were some ways in which Muslim politics were becoming distinctive after 1857.

There had been a significant Muslim population in India for centuries by the mid nineteenth century. The continent had been ruled by Muslim emperors from the sixteenth century, as part of the Mughal Empire. Indeed the British method of exerting power from behind a figurehead traditional ruler meant that Muslims still filled many elite positions within Indian society. Bahadur Shah retained the title of King, for example, even as the area he had actual control over contracted massively. Although tensions rose as it became clear his privileges would not be passed on to his heirs. The Muslim population were afraid of losing their advantages within society.

During the mutiny of 1857 many Muslims saw an opportunity to restore the Mughal Empire, and so regain the authority that had been eroded by European powers, particularly the British. Muslims rallied behind the figure of Bahadur Shah, determined to see him fully reinstated as emperor. The British were forced out of Delhi and Bahadur Shah held court for the first time in many years. Such actions compared unfavourably in British eyes with, for instance, the Sikhs of the Punjab who remained loyal and helped the British regain control of Delhi. The massacre at Kanpur, where dozens of British women and children were murdered, served to confirm the British view that Muslims had incited the entire rebellion and could not be trusted.

Robinson claims that one of the main reasons for separatism among Indian Muslims identified by historians is deliberate division of society by the British. The argument is that the desire for revenge after 1857 led the British to treat Muslims very harshly. By singling the Muslim community out a sense of identity then began to emerge in response. Certainly in the days after the recapture of Delhi punishments were severe. At Kanpur some Muslim sepoys were sewn into pig skins before being hung, something which punished both the body and the soul as pigs are deemed to be unclean by the Muslim faith. Bahadur Shah was exiled to Burma, and anti-Muslim sentiment remained strong for the rest of the year. Even in 1871 W. W. Hunter felt there was concern enough to make his writing ‘The Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen?’ worthwhile. 

However there is little evidence that this ill-feeling continued to cause substantial problems for Muslims in India. In 1859 Sayyid Ahmad Khan wrote a critique called ‘The Causes of the Indian Mutiny’ which highlighted Muslim fears that British education was attempting to force Christianity upon India. Officially the British resolved to be more conciliatory. They gave financial aid to the Aligarh Muslim University founded by Khan in 1885 for example. In addition large numbers of Muslims continued, as they traditionally had, to serve in the civil service. The 1881 census revealed there were over 50 million Muslims in India; if they were believed to be causing a serious threat surely British reaction at this time would have been much stronger.

Other historians have argued that Muslim politics began to emerge as a distinctive entity in response to a growing sense of Hindu nationalism. The 1860s saw the work of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar attempt to consolidate the prominence of Bengali for example, and Michael Madhusdan Dutt reframed traditional Indian mythology into something more coherent. Where before there had been many ‘Hinduisms’ there was now a growing cohesion to the faith. To be Indian was to be Hindu, and vice versa. Clearly this was an exclusive viewpoint, something which many Muslims must have felt strongly.

King’s work on the controversy surrounding government language policy in colonial India exemplifies the tensions. The Islamic elites spoke Persian or Urdu, the latter earning greater prominence when Persian was replaced with English for administration purposes in the 1830s. The British generally preferred Urdu to be used at this time, and there was little encouragement given to vernaculars. However as Hindu nationalism grew stronger there was a feeling that Hindi should be recognised. This was particularly evident in published literature. By 1925 the number of Urdu publications had shrunk from being half of all published literature to one eighth, the equivalent of one sixth of the Hindu output. Such figures suggest that Muslim groups would attempt to form closer connections as a defence against the deluge of Hindu nationalism.

This could explain the setting up of Muslim dominated schools. There was, as already mentioned, the Aligarh Muslim University which styled itself as an Indian counterpart to Cambridge University. In doing so it could be said that the Muslim population was attempting to project respectability to the British, and win support from them which might otherwise go to the Hindu nationalist movement. More notable perhaps is the foundation of the Darul Uloom Deoband in 1866 which strove to educate theologians and clerics in order to spread Sunni Islam. Graduates from the school were instrumental in securing conversions to Islam in Bengal. These schools taught loyalty is Islam, and stressed its importance as a way of life. The schools also created their own sense of community. When Sayyid Ahmad Khan distanced himself from the emerging National Congress in the late nineteenth century, so did his pupils.

However the picture is not as straightforward as it might first appear. The aim of many boys at these schools remained admission to posts within the British administration. So, whilst their faith was important to them, their sense of nationalism was in many ways limited. There are other contradictions. At Aligarh Hindu day students were welcomed, especially in the institution’s early years. Sayyid Ahmad Khan had set up an alternative to the National Congress, the Muhammadan Educational Congress in 1886. But, after his death, his former pupils no longer felt the need to conform to his wishes to keep the two separate. In 1909 the Muslim League and the Muhammadan Educational Congress broke apart, the former moving slowly towards alliance with the National Congress. What is clear is that there were not two polarised ‘nations’, rather there were points on which they disagreed.

This idea is supported by Chris Bayly’s findings on Hindu and Muslim clashes in the early nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. Delhi was mostly free of Hindu / Muslim tension, even though this had been a seat of Muslim power which was being steadily eroded. On the other hand Calcutta saw violence between Hindus and Muslims as early as 1789 at the festivals of the Muhurram and Durga Puja, the Muslim population reacting violently to Hindu prosperity in the region. The strength of separatist feeling continued to differ from place to place into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

From 1913 there was a new approach visible. The politicians of the Muslim League sought to unite with the National Congress, something which would enable them to work together to obtain a greater say in the way India was governed by the British. In 1916 this arrangement was formalised by the Lucknow Pact. Gandhi became a leading figure in Muslim political policy too, proving that faith was not necessarily completely divisive at this time. Muslim and Hindu cooperation in the Congress was often rocky, but it wasn’t until later that the campaign to truly separate the faith into two nations was began in earnest.

In conclusion Muslim politics emerged as distinctive in the aftermath of 1857 in a number of ways. Education became very important as Muslims both sought to secure their faith, ensuring there were sufficient teachers available for the future. It also enabled them to keep their traditional elite status in the law courts and the civil service, and give them the respectability which was needed in order to be taken seriously by the British. Some policies were exclusive, such as the refusal to join the Indian National Congress, but this later gave way to a more cooperative stance, with the involvement of Congress and the Muslim League. At this time Muslim politics was distinctive in that it worked for Muslim benefit, trying to keep Indian vernacular languages out of official circles for instance, but it was only later that it became truly separatist.


  • Powell, Avril A. Muslims and Missionaries in Pre-Mutiny India, London Studies on South Asia No. 7. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1993. 
  • Bayly, C. A. "The Pre-History of 'Communalism'? Religious Conflict in India, 1700-1860." Modern Asian Studies 19, no. 2 (1985): 177-203. 
  • Robinson, Francis. Separatism among Indian Muslims: The Politics of the United Provinces' Muslims, 1860-1923, Cambridge South Asian Studies. London: Cambridge University Press, 1974. 
  • Lelyveld, David. Aligarh's First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. 
  • Metcalf, Barbara Daly. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982. 
  • King, Christopher Rolland. One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in the Nineteenth Century North India. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1994.


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